Sailing faster than I ever did before: training on a Volvo Ocean 65

I arrived in Antigua two days before the training started on Sisi. It gave me the opportunity to relax a bit, enjoy the local scenery, and to go and have a look at the boat.

She was in port, but no crew was on board. She looked sexy, and breathed "speed". It was the first time I saw a Volvo Ocean racer from close by, in "real life"... It was a special feeling, as I followed the Volvo Ocean race for years, and had always meshmerized how it would feel to sail on one of these stallions, the "top of the top, of the open ocean racers"...

We had a Whatsapp chat group with the whole crew, active already some weeks before the regatta. We exchanged some pleasantries before, and coordinated some logistics (transport, lodging, etc..), so we had breakfast with some of the "amateur" crew, a day before the actual training started, and together went to see Sisi.

This time, the crew was on board preparing the ship. I have to say, I rarely stepped on a boat which was clearly so well maintained. Sure, she was completely stripped and refurbished 18 months ago, but in the mean time, she did many regattas and several ocean crossing. And still, there was hardly any scratch I could see. All rigging looked super well laid out, orderly, well labeled,... She looked like "new". Her hull shone in the morning sun. Later on, I learned the crew dove in the water every morning, to scrub her hull, to avoid any growth - as growth slows down the boat. She was a beauty.

The evening before the first training day, I wrote this:

I have a confession to make.
I’ve done a lot of real crazy stuff in my life. I’ve done four expeditions to the world’s most remote locations. For a decade, I lead a UN team which was the first in, last out, in any emergency, anywhere in the world.
Where I am at now, in sailing, I don’t get the least bit worried to plan and execute a transocean passage even with a boat or crew I don’t know. Or to take a novice crew out sailing, teaching them the art of sailing, in the end being, as the skipper, responsible for their safety.
But tonight, I realized, as of tomorrow, I will be sailing on one of the fastest, most aggressive monohull sailing boats in the world, competing against some of the best in the sailing world.
One of our competitors is Charlie Enright, who just won the last year’s Volvo Ocean race, one of the most challenging and high-stake around-the-globe races… He was actually having breakfast at the table next to us, this morning, BTW. Almost felt like Bono from U2 was sitting on the next table. Or president Obama… Pip Hare and Bouwe Bekking, two other notorious global ocean racers are also around, and will be competing in the same regatta..
And I have to confess, I am nervous, like I have not been for a long long long time. I guess this is how we grow and keep on learning, right? Raising the bar, facing the abyss, and… just jump..
But this is really crazy shit. I gotta be nuts. Even at the age of 63.

When the morning of the first of 3 training days came, we were all hyped up. Apart from the six professional crew, we were with 11 amateur sailors, mostly from Europe and North America. Some of the "amateurs" were hardcore regatta sailors. Some, like me, were more cruising sailors. Some had sailed on Sisi before, and others were less experienced. The ages varied from 18 to 70. I was the 2nd oldest on board. Some were physically very fit, built like athletes, others were, well, like me: not built or trained like an athlete, but nevertheless knew how to move on a boat :-)...

Needless to say, we were all excited the first morning, ready for our initial briefing by Gerwin, the skipper and Ollie, the boat captain. Both were part of Sisi's permanent crew and part of the contingent of 6 professional sailors onboard.

From the first moment onboard, it was clear these guys knew how to handle a large and diverse amateur crew. Gerwin and Ollie gave a basic safety briefing, and an overview of the boat, and its operation. As Gerwin said: this is not an overly complex boat, in terms of "systems": most of its operations were "manual". The only electrical pump-driven hydraulic system was the kanting of the keel, which could swing 40° sideways, but all the rest (such as the winches) were manual. There was not even an auto-pilot on Sisi. But boy, there were a lot of "ropes" on this boat - the running rigging to hoist and trim the many sails she could fly.

There were basically two "modes" we would sail in: One mode was "maneuvering" - where all crew is on deck, each with a specific task or "position". "Maneuvering" was the mode when changing sails (dropping or hoisting), while tacking or jybing (changing wind direction).
The second mode was "passage" mode, when we would sail longer straight lines, with only 5 crew on deck, while the others were off duty. Watches were run with a 3 hours on and 6 hours off cycle. When "off duty", you were resting, eating or "hiking" (sitting on the rail, to help balancing the boat).
Even when "off duty", "all hands on deck" could be called, when we were preparing a maneuver or changing sails. At that call, you had a few minutes to drop whatever you were doing, or crawl out of your bunk, to get on deck and take your maneuvering position. - which later on proved to be one of my personal challenges, as, even when trying to rest, my subconscience was always listing to a call for "all hands on deck".

When maneuvering, each of the 17 crew had their specific position (or "task"). One at the helm, several crew on the bow, 6 "grinders" who worked on the pedestrals - the "coffee grinders" which controlled several of the massive winches, someone controlling "the pit" (which controlled which line was grinded by the pedestrals), two controlling the main sheet (powering the main sail), and the "runners".

I was part of the 4-person "runners" team - and yep, after I was assigned my task as "runner", I had to ask what "a runner" does... Well, the 30m tall carbon mast, is kept up with several cables, or "stays": The forward stays, or "forestays", keep the mast up straight, forward - and were also used to hold the fore-sails. There were two fixed side stays, and two back-stays, running to aft of the boat. The back-stays put pressure on the mast, counter balancing the pressure all sails put on the mast, which push forward. So the backstays are the only "things" which avoid the mast from collapsing forward. And dependent if we got the wind from starboard or port side (from the right or the left of the boat), the left or right running backstays, had to be tensioned up, or released. That was the task of the "runners", including me.

So every time the boat tacked or jybed, one backstay had to have its tension released, while the other backstay had to be tensioned up. And that had to happen quickly, as the boat could not tack or jybe unless the tension was ready, otherwise the mast would collapse under the forward pressure of the sails. So, to put it simply, the speed in which the "runners" did their task, determined the speed the boat could maneuver.

As "a runner", I was part of a team of four: When we tacked or jybed, Sheila would, at the right time, release the tension on one backstay, while Dan, Alessandro ("Ale") and me, would tension up the other backstay, which would become the "active" backstay. The tension on the backstay was about 2.5 tons of pressure when sailing downwind, and between 3 to 5 tons of pressure when running upwind. The faster the runners could tension up the backstays, the faster a maneuver could be done, as no tack or jybe could be done unless if the right tension was applied to the back stays.

So here is the scenario: We would be sailing in "full hiking mode", with 5 crew on the helm and sheets, and the rest of the crew sitting upwind, on the rail, on the side of the boat. The helmsperson would call "prepare to tack!", and all 11 hiking crew would jump, crawl or scramble to their assigned maneuvering positions. Quite a challenge, as most of the time, Sisi heals 30° to 35°. And as she is very wide, getting up from my hiking position on the rail, it looked like I was somewhat looking down into an abyss, downwind of the boat: Ale, Dan and I, had to, as quickly as possible, crawl to our winch, which controlled the backstay. But as the boat was always healing that much, it felt like crawling down a 5-6 meters slope through a hurdle of ropes and obstacles, with little to hold on to, and while all other crew crawled to their maneuvering positions too.

During the first training day, it looked a bit like "organized chaos". And I have to admit, we, the runners, were often slow in tensioning up our backstay. But during the 2nd training day, we got the hang of it: When the call "prepare to tack" or "prepare to jybe" came, Dan, who is a professional sailor and a 1000% more agile then me, would "fly" over to the winch for the backstay, and prepare the backstay line on the winch, ready for Ale to grind, and me to pull in the backstay rope by hand, while I was watching a small display, which measured the tension on the backstay (or the other way around: I would grind and Ale would watch the display). During the maneuver, Sheila would release the pressure on her backstay, and Dan, Ale and me would tension up the active backstay.

To read the tension on the backstay, we had to monitor a small display, measuring the tension, which we could only see while looking in-between the legs of the crew grinding on the 2nd pedestral. I have never spent that much time, on my belly, looking between the legs of two other men, who were grinding on the second pedestral. So I got quite "intimate" with the inner legs of Erik and Ed, "manning" the 2nd pedestral - who - as time went by - proved to be great people and became good friends.

So, during the training, and during the regatta: this small display, between the legs of Erik and Ed, became "my life" for my stay on Sisi: on the bottom left and right of the display, are the numbers for the backstay pressure. Getting that number to the right value was my sole purpose in life while on Sisi - well, at least during maneuvers, apart from also running my watches...

As I said: the first day, it was a bit like "organized" chaos, but by the 2nd day, we got the hang of it, and hi-fived amongst the runners, when we tensioned up the backstays well in time, allowing the boat to do a fast maneuver. While maneuvering this boat, in full speed mode, it was quite a sight, to see 17 people all working together, each with a specific task, all depending on each other.

We had two days of "full-on" training, which showed the real power of Sisi. We were often sailing at speeds matching or going faster than wind speed, something which is really rare on boats I had sailed so far in my 20-odd years of sailing. She was fast... The speed was exhilarating. The view off the back of the boat as Sisi was racing through the water, on her massive sails, was... special. "Hiking", sitting on the rail, while you see the fluorescent keel kanted below your feet, and the water rushing by at that speed, was... special.
And even more special was when I was given the helm of Sisi, with the orders like "Oh, take it easy, keep her speed below 10.5 knots", which was close to the fastest I had ever sailed before. And that was "relaxed cruising mode" for Sisi...

At the end of each of the first two training days, I was exhausted. But happy. My initial "nervousness" made way to pure excitement.

The third day, we had our final briefing, and the fourth day, we were starting the three days and three nights regatta. Which proved to be quite a challenge for me.

More in the next posts.


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